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Flying Green: Spotlight on Aviation Biofuels

October 11, 2012
BIO’s Pacific Rim Summit on Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy kicked off it’s Thursday programming with a plenary session called Flying Green: Why Airlines See a Bright Future in Biofuels. Moderator Ross MacFarlane of Climate Solutions set the stage calling the issue of creating sustainable, low carbon alternatives to fossil fuels one of the biggest challenges for the next era of flight.

MacFarlane cited cost, conflict and climate as the three main drivers for aviation biofuels. The profitability and survival for airlines is at stake, and is currently tied to the political and economical instability of fossil fuels.

Boeing’s Sean Newsum called sustainable aviation fuels the key factor to allow aviation to continue to grow in the future. He outlined Boeing’s two-pronged approach to reducing carbon emissions. First they are creating more efficient planes and increasing operational efficiency to allow less fuel use. That’s not enough, however. They also need to change the fuel and take advantage of sustainable biofuels.

Boeing supports drop-in biofuels to minimize switching costs and believes there is already broad demand for aviation biofuels as we have transitioned from test flights using biofuels from 2008-2011 to early commericial flights in 2011 and 2012. Biofuels will continue making progress, MacFarlane said, with a continued emphasis on sustainability and commercial scale production. We want to have 1,500 flights a day powered by biofuels, not 1,500 per year, he added.

Steve Fabijanski of Agrisoma discussed the importance of creating a biojet value chain that starts with a feedstock. The challenge faced by the industry is connecting the capacity of agriculture to the demand of aviation with a robust value chain.

Warren Lampitt of Air Canada and Hideo Ohtake of All Nippon Airways brought the session full circle with the airline perspective on biofuels. Lampitt talked about Air Canada’s goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020. He said, “if you grow it, we will fly it,” adding that the big challenge for airlines is needing pricing at parity with petroleum. Ohtake talked about biofuel use as a responsibility of airlines and highlighted their April 2012 flight that marked the first trans-pacific flight powered by biofuels in history.

The panelists talked about the role government can play in helping biofuels reach a tipping point where they become cost-competitive on a commercial scale. All agreed that there is a role for government to create policies that ensure aviation fuels are not at a disadvantage, and to create a stable policy environment providing industry and investors confidence to continue to pursue advanced biofuels.